2010 Issues   /   Wounded Servicemembers

Wounded Servicemembers Discuss Reintegration after Injury

By U.S. Medicine

WASHINGTON, DC—Injured servicemembers are often first confronted with the reality of reintegration when they are lying in a hospital bed. “It is a shock. All you can think about is ‘where are my guys? Are they able to do the mission without me?’” said Michael Schlitz, who was flown to Brooke Army Medical Center after he was seriously injured in 2007 when an IED stuck his vehicle in theater.

Schlitz was part of a panel discussion on the reintegration process that injured servicemembers face when they return from theater. The discussion was part of a forum held in September by the Military Officers Association of America and the US Naval Institute.

Schlitz’s injuries included the loss of his hands, burns on 85% of his body, and the loss of sight in his left eye due to scarred cornea. As of July 2010, he has had 56 surgeries, including multiple skin grafts, bone and joint releases, one cornea transplant that failed, and the amputations of both hands. “After you get out of the hospital, the next step is to get back on your feet as an outpatient. That means going to your appointments so you become functional, but it also means going back out into the world and into the population where people are going to look at you, not just necessarily as a person anymore, but as a combat veteran.”

Reintegrating After an Injury

Schlitz said that participating in outside activities in the community is helpful in the recovery process. Injured servicemembers, he said, must get comfortable again with interacting with people outside of the military as they return to their communities. One main way to do this is through recreational activities organized for them by civilian organizations and nonprofits. “We have to set up things to get soldiers comfortable with being out in the world again.”

Schlitz said it is also important to recognize that injuries that servicemembers have sustained may not be visible to the eye. While his injuries are very apparent, he said other servicemembers have injuries that are not visible to the eye and so they may not get the attention or quick assistance they need.

Mariette Kalinowski, who served two tours in Iraq in the military and now receives counseling for PTSD from VA, said that if there was one thing she could change it would be society’s view of what constitutes a veteran. Many people, she said, do not realize she is a veteran because she is a woman. “When you say, ‘veteran’ to the average pedestrian on the street they are going to envision a very well-built man with a crew cut or a fade that fills that stereotype. When I walk down the street it is not assumed I served in the military.”

Michael Dabbs, president of the Brain Injury Association of Michigan, said that one suggestion he has is for VA to better utilize local community assets to augment its resources. Dabbs said that in Michigan alone there are over 10,000 workers in the brain injury rehabilitation field. “There are far more assets out there outside of the VA than within VA or within DoD.”

Chief of Staff of the Army Gen George W Casey, Jr told the audience that insufficient dwell time between deployments has been hard on soldiers. Casey said that a recently completed study has shown that 24 to 36 months of dwell time is needed to recover from a one-year combat deployment. “We are all human, we are all subject to the stresses and strains of combat. The reality has been that within the last five years we have been deploying closer to one year out, one year at home.”

He said that it will not be until 2012 that all Army soldiers should have close to two years of dwell time between deployments. He said that the fact that soldiers have not had “sufficient time at home to fully recover” has “accelerated the cumulative effects” of the war.

Casey and his wife, Sheila Casey, spoke to an audience in September at the 2010 Defense Forum Washington on the impact of the war on military families.

Casey noted the cumulative effects of the last nine years of war will be felt for years to come. “We have had over 27,000 soldiers wounded, 7,500 of those soldiers are severely wounded and will require long term care.” Since 2000, almost 100,000 soldiers have been diagnosed with some form of TBI and since 2003, almost 45,000 soldiers have been diagnosed with PTSD, he said.

Casey also said that the Army has made progress in rectifying being what he called “out of balance.” By “out of balance,” he said that he meant that while the Army was very resilient, the “Force and families were significantly stressed by the demands of several years of the war.”

I came up with the term ‘out of balance,’ that we were so weighed down by our current demands that we couldn’t do the things that we knew that we needed to do to sustain this all-volunteer force for the long haul. We put ourselves on a plan in 2007 to get to a better position, to get back to balance.”

Sheila Casey stressed the importance of caregivers in the military taking time to care for themselves. “If you don’t take care of yourself physically, emotionally, spiritually you are not going to have the energy to take care of anyone else,” she said.

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